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“I like nontraditional elements in my productions. Whether it’s using strings or piano in metal or heavy guitars in pop, I’m always looking for something to make it stand out from the norm of whatever genre I’m
working in.”

WHEELS 2.0 DIGS GRAVES

Somehow, Jesse’s World Is Big Enough to Accommodate a Multitalented Rock Producer and a Diva in Waiting

By Jesse Beer-Dietz

In this week’s edition of Wheels, I get a chance to pick the brain of Grammy-nominated producer Rob Graves, just after his client Red scored its chart-topping debut. Below the interview is a reprise of last week’s spotlight on an up-and-coming R&B singer who appears to have everything it takes to challenge the reigning divas. Keep feedin’ the inbox: [email protected].

EMAIL Q&A WITH ROB GRAVES
Can you tell everyone how you got started in the music business and what inspired you to want to be a producer?

I grew up playing several instruments—drums, bass, piano, guitar—pretty much whatever I could get my hands on. Once I discovered guitar, I dropped everything else and focused on it (I was 14). When I started learning the solos of all my favorite players, I wanted to perform the solos to their music, so I got a four-track and a bunch of recording gear—drum machine, keyboards, etc.—and I began replicating their songs, just so I could solo over them. Looking back now, I realize I was learning to become a producer—how songs are structured, how tracks are built, how all the parts work together and don’t interfere with each other. I had no idea at the time, but once I was older and got deeper into music, it sort of hit me, I already had a feel for what worked and what didn’t work because I’d spent my whole life doing it.

I studied for a while at Berklee and met some great people. I was focused on being a recording artist at Berklee and for some time after; then, as I got a little older into my 20s, that shifted. I still loved music, but the idea of being an artist no longer appealed to me. Long story short—I eventually decided to get a more traditional education at a liberal arts school, and I had no idea what role music would play in my life, but I simply couldn’t escape it. While I was in college, once any student band found out I’d gone to Berklee they’d track me down and try to get me to produce a demo for them. I probably made five or six records during college.

Once I graduated, I had a lot of good, stable career options and of course, I moved to Nashville to be a producer. I had some contacts in Nashville from Berklee, notably Fred Paragano, who now owns Paragon Studios in Franklin, TN. He was very instrumental in helping me get started. When I moved here, I knew I could program, do guitar sessions, write and produce, and I figured I would draw from all four of those areas. It happened pretty quickly for me and I had some good breaks. Fred recommended me to one of the labels for some remixes, literally three days after I moved here—my stuff wasn’t even unpacked. And that was pretty much it for me; once I was in, I was in. That label kept hiring me for random things and eventually hooked me up to write with one of their artists, it worked out, I got some cuts, that producer hired me to do all the programming and guitars on the album, etc.

From that point, I produced a couple tracks here and there, but things took off when I found Red. I reached the point pretty quickly where I knew I had some success but nothing had blown up yet. I wanted to be more proactive and make something happen, so I started looking for an artist or band to work with. An intern from Paragon asked if I would listen to his band’s demos and give an opinion, and that band was Red (they weren’t called Red then; they didn’t have a name). I liked them immediately, and after some meetings I signed them to my production company and we spent about two years writing and developing their sound. We ended up with four songs, fully produced as masters (I wanted to make sure what I was playing for labels sounded like a record, not a demo). They got signed pretty quickly and we’re now on to the third record. That opened up a lot of doors for me.

Every producer has their signature sound; what would you say defines the music you produce?
Well here is what I at least strive for: definitely dynamics. I think the concept of dynamics is lost these days, and music can be a bit linear. So I like to make the big sections really big and the small sections really small.

I definitely love the “wall of sound” and I try to use it in rock the same way Max Martin does in his pop productions—very full choruses that still allow the vocal to stand out.

I also try to let the different genres I work in influence each other. So if I’m doing rock, I want huge melodies like in pop. And if I’m doing pop, I tend to make it more aggressive and let my rock influences creep in.

I think there are some intangibles to the way I produce and write, where people who know my work really well can hear something I did and say it sounds like “me” but they may not know exactly why. It has to do with the way I write melodies (I like big interval leaps and those tend to be the more memorable melodies) and certain inversions I use in my guitar playing. And I like nontraditional elements in my productions. Whether it’s using strings or piano in metal or heavy guitars in pop, I’m always looking for something to make it stand out from the norm of whatever genre I’m working in.

Tell us what you’re currently working on.
Right now I’m producing Brian “Head” Welch’s solo album, as well as Maylene and the Sons of Disaster with Brian Virtue. I also have some great co-writes I’m in the midst of, with Hey Monday and Boys Like Girls. EMI in L.A. is also keeping me busy with trailers for film and videogames, which is really fun. I just did an electronica version of “New York, New York” for an EA game called Crysis 2. I hope to do a lot more of that.

I’m really excited about a band I signed to my production company called Wavorly. It’s the first time I’ve done this since Red, and it’s essentially the same program but with a pop/rock band—we worked for over a year to write and record some great songs and I’m just about ready to shop them. Ben Grosse is involved in the mixing (he did all the Red albums) so the material is sounding great.

What advice would you give to someone who is looking to get into the production side of things?
It’s a difficult question, because for producers there’s really no standard road. Some of us are former A&R guys, some of us used to be in a band, others of us were songwriters or engineers that made the transition. Usually there is a backdoor in—most producers used to be something else (a programmer, an engineer, a songwriter, etc.).

I think it’s important to know what kind of producer you are and master that genre. If you’re a hands-on producer who programs everything and plays a lot of the instruments, make sure you understand that about yourself and learn as much as you can about the gear you’re using. At first, you’ll need to do whatever you can to get experience, and if you’re a writer, it’s even better—start with producing your own songs. A great way to get production opportunities is to produce a great version of your song. Once you have these basics, so much of it comes down to attitude.

I think you can’t underestimate the importance of simple effort, in every area. When I started working in the industry, I did my best to make myself indispensable to whatever project I was working on—giving people more than what they asked for, going the extra mile. That can really go a long way. You also need to understand artists and what they need from you to be their best. For example, not every singer responds well to pressure—for others it brings out their best. Your ability to quickly learn this about whomever you’re working with is critical. If you’re not detail-oriented, then you need to quickly become detail-oriented.

Lastly, never expect anything to be handed to you. If nothing’s happening, make something happen. That’s basically what I did with Red. Go out and do it. And if it doesn’t work, do it again.

Final question: What piece of recording equipment would you say best describes your personality and why?
Ha ha…um. I’d probably go with my Chandler TG2 preamp. Most people never notice it in the back of the room, but really it’s running the show.

ONE TO WATCH
Tatiana Owens
(http://www.myspace.com/tatianaowens): This 18-year-old pop/R&B sensation is a three-time winner of the International Modeling and Talent Association (IMTA) Best Singer competition in L.A. and New York. Tatiana is presently working with such writer/producers as Bill Grainer (Jennifer Hudson), Scott Krippayne (Jordin Sparks/Kutless), Bryan Todd (Miley Cyrus), Jamelle Jones (Swizz Beatz), Wil Guice (Usher) on material for her debut album. Her song "Boy Watcher" was included in the MTV show The Hills, as well as the DVD release of The City. A graduate of the Toledo (Ohio) School for the Arts, Tatiana has performed in L.A., N.Y., Nashville and Detroit in support of her debut single,“Pendulum.” It’s being used on VH1’s Love and Hip Hop, while her ballad “Hazy” recently aired on the same channel’s What Chilli Wants. Additionally, you can catch Tatiana’s episode in the new reality series Garo Unleashed on the Sundance Channel this summer. The weasels are sniffing, and we expect things to be heating up shortly.

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